top of page
  • stephen2760

Centering "Presentation of Self" in Formative User Research: Making Empathy Matter

Updated: Jan 10

I’m a UX researcher. I’m also a professional sociologist. I find my experience in sociology provides a distinct advantage as a UX researcher, particularly in presentation of self when moderating formative research projects. Adroit presentation of self makes our attempt to empathize more effective.

Empathy is a core epistemology in formative UX research. Researchers might “know” what the users of a product think and feel if we try to understand from their perspective (thus, the moderated usability study). We take that information and help our clients improve upon their products, so they’re more user friendly and likely to sell. Yet, empathy doesn’t just happen. Rather, empathy is dependent on the quality of a relationship between two or more people. To empathize effectively, the moderator must develop rapport with participants. This requires skill in how we present ourselves. 

My experience in UX suggests empathy in practice is often reduced to listening. Follow the script word-for-word, speak without emotion, probe only for clarity, remove the person in you entirely. Certainly helpful, and sometimes necessary (i.e., validation testing). Some participants may respond well to the detached, emotionless moderator. However, others may respond better to a more nuanced moderator, one who knows how to adjust their self presentations to move past potential personality characteristics or power dynamics that may limit honest and open feedback. 

As a moderator, saying there is no right or wrong answer is one thing, but making the participant feel it is another. Good interviewing is not just about asking questions, but reading your participants and resonating with them emotionally. Do they appear comfortable? Are they shy? Are they uncertain in their thoughts and feelings? Good interviewing is not just about asking questions and knowing when to probe, but knowing how to ask questions and how to probe. If done right, a “I hear you” or “yeah, me too” is not biasing a response, but creating an opening for elaboration and new knowledge that would otherwise have remained bottled up. It creates an opportunity for someone to elaborate on a thought that they might not feel entirely comfortable or sure of expressing, but might turn out to be incredibly important. Of course you don’t want to ask leading questions or indicate a preferred response, but that’s not what I’m suggesting. 

Good UX not only requires recognition of other’s emotional and mental positions, but that recognition must be effectively performed and communicated to your participants through presentation of self. How you present yourself to your participants as you moderate sessions matters if empathy is to mean anything in our work. By extension, it matters for the quality of information you receive, and the usefulness of that information for your longer-term goals of improving usability. 

Some might say doing this biases the research. However, that would be a mistake, a vestige of the 1950s positivist tradition where “objectivity” was simple and obvious. Lots have changed in our understanding of methodologies and how to conduct research since. Now, social scientists have recognized that there is no such thing as unbiased, objective research. It’s all biased in some way in that it all reflects a perspective or subjectivity. It is the job of the researcher to know which perspectives are included and which are not, and what this means for the conclusions and how to move forward. Additionally, an interview session is embodied with power dynamics that favor the researcher and the institution they represent. The skilled researcher must understand this and work to counteract it if they are to get useful, accurate feedback. 

In any event, the point is that you can empathize all you want, but if others are holding back you still aren’t getting at the “truth.” This can be a problem in all kinds of qualitative research with human subjects, and it might be particularly problematic in UX, where the findings can play such an important role in ultimate design decisions and sales. Presentation of self as a moderator matters for getting past this problem and a skilled researcher knows how and when to do so. 


Recent Posts

See All

The Benefits of Causal Theory in Formative UX Research

As a sociologist my scholarship involves explaining why people act together. I published many peer-reviewed articles and a book with an esteemed press that all get at the question of action in some wa

Specializing in Medical Device Startups

Working with medical device startup companies can be a challenge for larger UX contract research organizations (CROs). Startups are on the constant lookout for investors and under continuous financial


bottom of page